In Huntsville, Ala., there is a sticker-obsessed little girl named Kate Berkholtz, age 2. She is pint-sized inspiration for all wannabe go-getters — a strong-willed toddler who “doesn’t take crap from anybody,” according to her mother, Jessica Berkholtz.
Kate always knows what she wants to do, and she almost always manages to do it. Right now her favorite pastimes include romping around on jungle gyms and skidding down slides headfirst. But as she gets older, some seemingly basic kid activities — like swinging from monkey bars or riding a bicycle — may not come so easily. This is because Kate was born with a congenital abnormality that left only a thumb on her left hand; four fingers are missing.
Prosthetic limbs are an option for children as young as Kate, but they run anywhere from about $10,000 to $50,000, and insurance companies typically don’t cover the cost because young patients will outgrow the devices so quickly. Kate’s family’s insurance would have paid the bulk of the fee, her mother says, leaving the family to come up with the remainder — $3,000 to $5,000 — but the “expense was still a little ridiculous,” Berkholtz says.
Enter Zero Point Frontiers, a space engineering company in Huntsville that heard about baby Kate’s predicament and volunteered to help. Jason Hundley, the company’s president and CEO, was introduced to Kate’s family through his wife, who runs a local children’s gym that the family attends. Serendipitously, Zero Point Frontiers had recently acquired a 3-D printer, which the company’s engineers quickly set about using to devise and build a low-cost, kid-size prosthetic hand. The engineers uploaded the hand design into the printer via a memory card, which the jet printer then used as a blueprint to guide its spray, back and forth, layer by layer, depositing tiny particles of plastic gradually to produce the 3-D object.
Made out of a biodegradable polymer, the hard contraption fits onto Kate’s forearm with Velcro straps and is powered by her wrist movements. When Kate bends her wrist, the wires that act as tendons tighten, curling the little plastic fingers and allowing her to grip and pick things up.
It’s no small triumph, though the toddler is perhaps more interested in the fact that the prototype she’s testing comes in ocean blue, with neon green digits. Kate initially said she wanted a pink Dora the Explorer hand, says Hundley, but the 3-D printer has only 12 colors, and pink is not one of them. It doesn’t matter — Kate likes anything bright.
Hundley plans to make a variety of attachments for Kate’s hand — a separate one for bike riding, for swimming, for holding the bow of a violin. While adult prosthetics are designed to accomplish a broad range of functions and to last for many years (and to be flesh-toned, of course), Hundley says that the low cost of producing each of the 3-D-printed devices — about $5 for the hand, mostly to cover the cost of the straps and wires, and $1 for each attachment — means that you can make as many as you want and keep swapping them out as the child grows. “This technology brings something that was the price of a car down to the price of a latte,” Hundley recently told the magazine Orthopedic Design & Technology.
The technology has actually been around for decades. Charles Hull, an engineer, invented 3-D printing in 1984 as a way for companies to model prototypes before firing up their factories and producing a design en masse. But in the last 10 years or so, as prices for the technology have come down, it’s been adapted for other uses, especially in the biomedical field. At Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., for example, researchers led by Dr. Anthony Atala are using 3-D printers to shape human tissue cells into replacement organs. Atala wowed the world in 2011 when during a TED talk in California he unveiled the world’s first printed kidney. The organs aren’t quite ready for use in patients yet, but ultimately, the goal is to produce organs, valves and other patient-specific tissues for people in need of transplants.
“This is only the beginning,” says Hundley. “For the first time, they’ve created printers that are less than $5,000. … In the coming years, you’re going to see much, much more of these types of applications.”
Going forward, Hundley hopes to make Kate’s printed hand modular, scalable and open source. That way, anyone can modify it to fit their particular needs, print the hand’s plastic structure and assemble it from anywhere in the world.
For now, he’s made a remarkable difference in the life of one towheaded toddler. Kate is “wanting to do things that her big brother is doing, like ride a bike or ride a trike, hold onto monkey bars, that kind of thing,” says her mom. “And this technology is going to let us do that like any other kid, for, like, five or ten bucks.”